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London’s Most Hallowed Space

by Fr Nicholas Schofield

I recently attended a memorial service at the London church of St Giles-in-the-Fields, just off Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue. It was, I thought, an appropriate location for such an event, for the deceased gentleman had had a great love for English literature and at this church the children of Milton, Shelley and Byron were baptised and the poet Andrew Marvell interred. The church building itself is typical of Georgian respectability and was designed by Henry Flitcroft, the son of William III’s gardener.

Unusually for central London churches, it is surrounded by a green space, once used as its churchyard and full of surprising secrets. The church originated as a leper hospital founded in 1101 by Matilda of Scotland, wife of Henry I. St Giles was a popular patron for lepers, cripples and beggars, and his churches can often be found on the outskirts of towns. The medieval hospital located at this isolated spot was run by the one of the lesser-known military orders founded at the time of the crusades: the Order of St Lazarus. During the 14th century, there were criticisms that the Lazars (as they were called) were putting the affairs of the Order ahead of caring for the lepers. On several occasions the king, who continued to see St Giles as a royal foundation, intervened by making appointments to the hospital management and briefly transferred the institution to the care of the Cistercians.

At the Reformation the institution was dissolved, as was the leper hospital at nearby St James’, which was transformed into a royal palace. In 1542 the old hospital chapel of St Giles became the parish church for the little village that had grown up around it. The area was at first sparsely populated, with a population of around 350 in the 1550s, but it soon grew into a crowded suburb, where rich and poor lived alongside each other. The poor, many of them, by the eighteenth century, Irish Catholic immigrants, lived in slums known as the ‘Rookeries’ and gave William Hogarth the inspiration for his famous ‘Gin Lane’ cartoon. As a reflection of the growing suburb, the church of St Giles was rebuilt in the contemporary style twice in the 1620s and 1730s.

According to Peter Ackroyd, ‘the invocation and loneliness first embodied in the 12th century foundation has never entirely left this area; throughout its history it has been the haunt of the poor and the outcast.’ ‘It was in every sense a crossroads,’ continued Ackroyd, an ‘entrance and exit’ and a ‘crossroads between time and eternity’. The graveyard at St Giles was the final resting place for the rich and the poor, the good and the bad, and many of the victims of the plagues that regularly hit London, including the Great Plague of 1665.

For many years, gallows stood near the churchyard, where Flitcroft Street now meets St Giles High Street, and on their way from Newgate to Tyburn condemned criminals would stop at the churchyard gate to drink a strengthening ale from the ‘St Giles Bowl’. The condemned often reached the ‘Triple Tree’ inebriated, which was perhaps a small mercy. I wondered whether any
of the Catholic martyrs were fortified here in such a way. Some of them certainly returned to the churchyard for burial: a favourable option given the alternative of the remains being flung into a mass grave or displayed across London as a deterrent to others. These include 11 of those martyred in 1679 as a result of the fictitious Popish Plot to assassinate Charles II. The first to be buried here, in January 1679, were Blesseds William Ireland, a Jesuit priest, and John Grove, described by Challoner as ‘a Catholic layman, employed as a servant by the English Jesuits in their affairs about town.’ Ireland’s kinsman, Richard Pendrell, had been buried at St Giles eight years previously and is described on his memorial as ‘Preserver and Conductor to His Majesty Charles the Second of Great Britain after his Escape from Worcester Fight in the year 1651’. Blessed William himself protested a similar loyalty on reaching Tyburn, which he called ‘the last theatre of the world’, where he prayed that God ‘shower down a thousand and a thousand blessings upon his Majesty.’

The following month it was the turn of Blessed Robert Greene, ‘an ancient feeble man, cushion-keeper of the Queen’s chapel’, and his servant Blessed Lawrence Hill, both accused of murdering Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, the magistrate involved in investigating the alleged plot, whose sudden death increased the anti-Catholic frenzy. The two men strenuously denied the allegations made against them. The executions and burials continued: the Benedictine Blessed Thomas Pickering, the five Jesuits Blesseds Thomas Whitebread, William Barrow (alias Harcourt), John Fenwick, John Gavan and Anthony Turner, and the barrister Blessed Richard Langhorne.

The most high profile martyr to be buried at St Giles, however, is no longer there: St Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. After being hanged, drawn and quartered on 1st July 1681, his body was buried in two tin boxes beside the five Jesuits on the north side of St Giles. In 1683 the remains were successfully exhumed, even though a woman had been buried above him, and smuggled to the English Benedictine monastery at Lamspringe, near Hildesheim in Germany.

A member of the community, Dom Maurus Corker, had befriended Plunkett while imprisoned at Newgate and had assisted him in his last days. He was at the time President of the English Benedictine Congregation and may have admitted the Archbishop as a ‘confrater’ of his abbey shortly before his execution. It was fitting, then, that the martyr’s body was enshrined in the abbey church, alongside other relics, such as the head of St Thomas of Hereford; Corker’s desire, writes one modern historian, was to create ‘a pantheon of English saints and martyrs which proclaimed the holiness and continuity of the English Catholic community.’ The body was later translated to Downside Abbey. Plunkett’s head, meanwhile, was brought to Rome and then transferred to Armagh and Drogheda, where it can be venerated at the church of St Peter to this day.

The churchyard of St Giles may appear to the casual passer-by as a convenient green space to sit down, enjoy a sandwich and catch up with the social media. In actual fact it is one of London’s most hallowed spots, with the remains of eleven beatified martyrs hidden beneath the ground, silently witnessing to the faith and awaiting the day of resurrection.

 Picture courtesy: Fr Lawrence Lew O.P

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